In 2012, industry estimates put the annual revenue of U.S. car rental companies at more than $24 billion, with 1.857 million cars at 18,293 rental locations. With so many folks renting cars so frequently, you would think the process would be straightforward and transparent -- yet somehow it is anything but.
Do I need to buy additional insurance? If not, am I exposed at all? What about paying to refuel the car? I hear horror stories about phony damage claims; should I be worried? No one is around to inspect the car with me; should I be worried? Can I drive to Mexico? What about all the other stuff they offer me at the rental counter? These questions come up pretty much every time we rent a car. Again, anything but straightforward.
Among all your options, there are some things you don't need to do, or even should not do, when renting a car. Below are 10 of them.
Prepaid gasoline charges appeal to our desire for simplicity while traveling, and also to concerns about being late for flights, as every few minutes added to the trip to the airport create more risk for arriving too late to board. As airport security has added considerable time to this process, rental companies have come up with new options for car refueling, and are giving them the hard sell at the rental desk.
Unless you are completely sure you will return the tank empty, or you have a pre-dawn flight that would make it worth the money not to have to refuel, don't fall for this one. Even the option where they charge you only for fuel you actually use is tipped aggressively in the rental agency's favor because the cost of having them refuel your car is always higher than the cost of doing it yourself.
To beat the rap on this one, don't make the next mistake:
The best time to find a place to refuel your vehicle is immediately after you pick it up. As you are driving away from the airport or rental agency, take note of the local gas stations, and make a plan to return to the most easily accessible or best-priced of them at the end of your rental. The road and neighborhoods around airports can be confusing and unfamiliar, so you don't want to be driving in circles looking for a gas station as your flight time approaches. Figure this out on your way out, when you are not pressed for time.
Before accepting this one at face value, it should be emphasized that auto insurance policies can vary considerably, so you will want to check with your own insurer directly. If you have the minimum legally permissible coverage, it may not include coverage for rental cars -- whereas if you have what companies call "full coverage," it almost certainly does. Call or email your insurer to find out.
In general, the rule of thumb is that the coverage you have for your main vehicle extends to your rental vehicle, because the rental is considered a replacement vehicle under the policy. So if you have comprehensive coverage on your own car, your policy would also give you comprehensive coverage for the rental vehicle.
Most policies will cover you even if the rental car is a "better" or more valuable car than your own car, so you don't have to worry if you get an upgrade or rent a much better car than the one you insure at home.
It is worth mentioning that an accident in a rental car will typically raise your rates if you have to make a claim on your own insurance policy.
Anything your own car insurance does not cover, it is likely that your credit card will. In some cases the credit card coverage is as good as or better than your auto insurance; in others it is intended to be secondary insurance to help cover anything your auto insurance does not.
Of course, you will need to pay for your car rental using that card; just having a qualifying credit card does not give you any protection.
For an overview of the coverage offered by the major credit card companies, see Rental Car Coverage: What Does Your Credit Card Offer?
A new-ish fee applied by car rental companies in the event of a damaged vehicle is "loss of use" charges, which are applied for the potential revenue lost when one of their cars is off the road during a repair. This is typically charged in the amount of a day's rental for that vehicle, and most auto insurance companies do not cover this fee. Many credit cards do, however, as shown in the link above; American Express, Mastercard and Visa all offer "loss of use" coverage with rentals paid for with most of their cards.
In the past, I've recommended reserving a low-priced car and then inquiring about upgrades at the rental desk. This works best at busy times when the garage is running low on lower-priced cars, and may offer you free or very affordable upgrades to a larger car class due to inventory management issues.
In most cases, the desk agent has considerable discretion in setting upgrade rates, so if he or she asks if you are interested in a larger car, respond that it depends on the price; you might find yourself in a much bigger and better car at minimal additional cost.
Many membership programs establish relationships with car rental companies as a member perk. These include travel organizations like AAA, airline frequent flier programs, age-specific organizations like the AARP, and even some sports- or hobby-focused groups. Rental car discounts are typically listed on the organization's website; you are already paying membership dues, so have a look before booking and you could find a great deal.
When you pick up your car, check it inside and out for anything that could potentially be considered damage before you drive away. Look for scratches, scuffs, loose parts, working power windows and mirrors, and more.
Keep an eye out for problems both small and big; the tendency is to take a quick walk around the car looking for scratches and blemishes, thinking that big problems would have already been noticed, but this is not always the case. I once rented a car that had a loose back bumper that the car rental company had not noticed previously. If I hadn't caught this before we left the garage and an inspector had seen it later, I would have been held completely responsible -- I would simply have thought that someone had banged into the car while it was parked, and that it had happened during my rental.
Your best protection here: take photos or a video of a slow walk around the car, and "kick the tires," so to speak.
Recently, the procedure of returning cars has come to resemble checking out of a hotel, where you leave your keycard on the night table and head out the lobby door with only a wave to the front desk -- no more official checkout, key return or interaction of any kind needed. Car rental returns have taken on a similar feel; as often as not, you follow signs to the back of a row of recently returned cars, take out your stuff, leave the key in the car and walk away without ever speaking to anyone directly.
If it feels unsettling just to leave the car without an agent checking it over, it should; the most serious complaints about car rental companies in recent months have been disputes over damage claims. If no attendant is present at dropoff (and sometimes when there is), the dispute later becomes your word against theirs. Unfortunately the terms of the contract, and the fact that the rental company has your credit card number, makes it very hard for you to win one of these disputes, at least not without considerable expenditure of energy, resources and potentially money (for a lawyer, court appearance, etc.).
Again, your best protection here is to take photos or a video of a slow walk around the car.
Most U.S. car rental agreements do not allow you to drive the car across international borders (which means to Mexico or Canada for domestic rentals). Additionally, your U.S. car insurance rarely covers international car rentals, so you will likely want to purchase insurance from the rental company at the time of rental.
Credit card companies may help here, as most do offer coverage in many international destinations; see Rental Car Coverage: What Does Your Credit Card Offer? for the international coverage policies of the major credit card companies.
Stateside, typically rental counters located near the borders either display or explain this policy clearly -- if you rent a car in Nebraska, they might not mention it, of course -- but you want to be aware of this yourself. If you do drive across international borders and you have a problem, most of the protections of your rental contract, insurance and other sources may be negated.
Do you have any other suggestions? Anything above work well for you, or backfire for any reason? Let us know in the comments.